King's College London
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Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

The voyage of the Beagle

Colour plate showing side on views of two species of mouse.Two species of mouse, mus xanthorhinus, found in Tierra del Fuego, and mus nasutus, found near Buenos Aires.In December 1831 HMS Beagle, a converted gun brig, sailed from Plymouth on what was to be a five-year circumnavigation of the globe. This official naval expedition of geographical observation would be largely devoted to the study of Latin America, an area of considerable interest to the British government in the post-independence period.

Among those on board was Charles Darwin (1809-82), a recent Cambridge graduate who owed his presence there to the good offices of his tutor, John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany at Cambridge. Henslow had recommended his keen and promising student to the ship's captain, Robert FitzRoy, as a young naturalist who could be relied upon to collect and record specimens with diligence and care. The voyage was to be a turning-point in Darwin's life, determining his career as a naturalist and providing data that would inform his later scientific theories.

The Beagle made its way down the eastern coast of South America, visiting Brazil and the capital cities of Uruguay and Argentina, but the main foci of the expedition were the southern extremities and western coastline of the sub-continent. Darwin devoted many months to his observations in Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia and the Galápagos Islands, recording details of species' habitat and behaviour and collecting specimens to be sent back to Cambridge.

After his return to England in 1836 he spent much of the next few years examining and analysing specimens in collaboration with fellow naturalists and embodying the results in a series of publications, of which the Zoology is one. The plates on display show two species of mouse, mus xanthorhinus, found in Tierra del Fuego, and mus nasutus, found near Buenos Aires.

Darwin's South American expedition provided him with an unparalleled opportunity to study at close quarters and in detail the animal life of a vast, wild and relatively unexplored part of the world. Although it was to be some years before he formulated the theories embodied in his most famous work, On the origin of species by means of natural selection (1859), much of the data that would lead him to that formulation was gathered in South America. In particular, Darwin's observations of bird species in remote offshore habitats such as the Galápagos Islands and their relation to their mainland counterparts suggested to him how each species had evolved and adapted to meet the demands of its specific environment.

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